The Witch-House

8/1/16


There was a tumbledown moss-skinned cabin that stood on a long strip of scraggly-wooded land in the center of I-84, and as long as Becca could remember, everyone had always called it the Witch-House.

They passed it on the way into Woodbury, which wasn't often, since Woodbury was thirty miles away from home and aside from a larger mall, cheaper movie theater, and a bowling alley open until 3 AM, it didn't boast anything they couldn't find in the far closer Danbury. Her parents were thrifty and didn't like to waste gas, so Becca was twelve before she saw it for the first time. Even then, there was no story to the name. It just was.

"I can't believe they haven't bulldozed that little shack yet," her father said, pointing as they zipped by, "Didn't I read last year that some kids were caught smoking weed in there?"

"No," her mother replied, "They said that a homeless man had hanged himself there. Either way," she shivered and merged into the right lane as a truck barreled down the hill behind them, "you'd think they'd be glad to get rid of a place called the Witch-House."

The truck whooshed by. They rounded a corner and the house was gone from view. Still, Becca's parents were silent for a few minutes after, until at last her mother said, "I remember it from my childhood," she murmured, "I can't believe it hasn't fallen down yet."

Her father didn't answer. He was from New York, and had legends and stories of his own to haunt him.

Becca sat back and turned up the sound on her CD player again. The sight of the cabin, its eaves slumped down like a hunchbacked little woman, peering blearily through warped, dusty windows at a world racing by hadn't touched her. Sure, it was weird, but there were weirder things in the world. There were weirder things in their own family.

The winter she turned fourteen was the first time she set foot in the Witch-House. Her older sister came back abruptly back from her fall semester of Junior year, shaking and anxious, short of breath and shut in. Becca didn't ask, but she heard the story from her parents' whispered conversations in their bedroom down the hall at night. Sarah had broken down screaming in the middle of her first Organic Chemistry exam and had to be carried out by security.

Becca was home alone for three days while her parents went to Boston and brought their oldest girl back home.

The first night she was back, Becca listened at the bathroom door while her mother insisted Sarah swallow her pills right then and there. It took ten minutes of screaming and banging, shattered glass and broken porcelain, but at the end of it Sarah took her meds and let mother look under her tongue.

The show repeated every night for the first two weeks, but Becca soon stopped listening. Instead, she went to her room and turned her stereo up—the stereo that had been Sarah's, the room that had been Sarah's—and did her homework. Poorly.

October passed, and November. By the time December rolled around, everyone was wound so tightly—around themselves, around each other—that Becca wanted to scream just to snap the tension and bring the catastrophe stalking them into the light. But she couldn't. At long last, Sarah had stopped screaming; stopped just when Becca realized how it could help.

In this new, tense peace, Mom decided it was time to reestablish some normalcy. The weekend they decorated for Christmas was the strangest two days she could ever remember. It was odd to have Sarah there, helping them bring up the boxes from the basement. It was weird to make the Snickerdoodles alone, following the stained recipe by herself in the kitchen since mother wouldn't leave Sarah by herself. And when the tree finally had its spangled coat of ornaments and lights, even that was strange. It looked the same as it always did. So they were the odd ones, the out-of-place.

Sarah ate a cookie and chugged some hot chocolate, and said she was going upstairs to take a nap.

Mother followed a few minutes later, after kissing Becca hard on the forehead. Becca heard her crying later, low and choked as they'd all learned to do.

She lingered in the living room, slowly packing away the empty boxes of ornaments and eating steadily from the cookie tray. The waistband of her jeans was tight and her arms were so chubby that getting on her last-year's sweaters was a tug-of-war, but she didn't care. The cookies were sweet, and crispy, and no one else wanted to eat them.

The hours crawled by and the sun dipped low. In the twilight, the jewel-tone lights bounced and flashed from ceiling to waxed wooden floor. Becca sat on the sofa, bloated and headachy, wishing she could doze, praying she could write her English essay, wanting desperately to do anything at all but just sit there feeling cold and defeated and empty.

She did something, eventually. She went to the kitchen and took out the leftover roasted chicken from last night and ate it, standing at the open refrigerator door. Then she devoured the last baked potato. And the clumped, oily stuffing.

"C'mon," Sarah's voice made her jump, "let's get out of here."

Becca dropped the tupperware and stared at her sister. She had put on her jacket and boots, and car keys—not hers, her car was still in Boston—dangled from her fingers. Her eyes were hollow and bright, gleaming sickly through the shadows.

"Let's go," she repeated, "I need you. Dad's got my wallet. I don't have any cash."

"I've got a little," Becca's own voice was unfamiliar, soft and shy after so many weeks of hiding away.

"I know," her sister scoffed, "So grab it. I wanna do something."

"What?" she asked the question but moved to obey. Growing up, Sarah had always been the stronger sister, the one who got her way, who imposed her will on others. Even Sarah sick was a force too strong for her little sister, who seemed to grow even littler as she scuttled to her room for her purse and then to the closet for her coat.

"I dunno," they walked outside together, feet crunching on the hard-packed frost-topped snow, "but if I have to stay in that house for one more minute, I really am gonna lose my mind."

She slammed the driver's seat door and a light flashed on in their mother's bedroom. Becca's heart leaped like a startled bunny's, and she clung to her seatbelt. She wanted to jump from the car, but she couldn't. Someone had to stay with Sarah. Someone had to take care of her.

Sarah backed them down the driveway without a slip and waved cheerfully at the dark-coated figure that chased them before burning rubber and fishtailing up the road. Becca watched their mother slump to her knees, a black blot against the snow, and shuddered.

"I feel like three things," she declared grandly, once their house was out of sight. "I feel like eating an entire sausage pizza, drinking an entire keg of beer, and watching a movie while eating an entire bag of Reese's Pieces."

"I can't drive," Becca whispered.

"So?"

"So, you can't—"

"Aw, yeah," she interrupted, swerving around a mailbox, "no drinking. Okay then, you pick something. Pizza, movie, and…?"

Her mind was a frozen blank, with only one weak light flickering in the vast cold darkness inside. She had to think of a place with a phone so she could call Mom. "We could go bowling," she blurted at last, "remember, like we did for your last birthday?"

"Yeah," she said, a smile splitting her face, "Yeah. The midnight bowl, I remember. Okay, let's do it. We can get pizza at the alley and do the movie before or after. Aw," she leaned over and ruffled Becca's hair, car sliding across two lanes in the process, "my smart little kid sister. I've missed you. You've been scared of me since I came back, haven't you?"

"No," she shook her head, "just worried. I don't think," she swallowed as her sister's hand closed around her wrist, "I don't think we should be doing this."

"Oh come on," was the reply. They were at the entrance to the highway now, and Sarah blazed through the deserted intersection and pushed the poor old van to its limits as they raced up the on-ramp, "We used to do this all the time. Don't you remember the first summer I had my license, and we…"

Becca's ears were too flooded with a rush of panicked blood from her heart to listen, and Sarah didn't want to hear her anyway. She was lost in a beguiling stream of happier memories, and as they sped down the highway, gave herself up to the flood.


Sarah's manic energy dragged them from the movie theater, to the mall, to a dingy pizza joint, to the bowling alley. It was only there, at one o'clock in the morning, that Becca managed to slip away to call their parents. But when she came back from her trip to the "bathroom", Sarah had slumped. Literally. She sat slouched over a bubble-gum pink bowling ball, forehead drumming hard against the plastic.

Becca laid one shaking hand on her sister's shoulder and said, "Let's go home."

Sarah nodded, and they left.

At least the roads were mostly deserted, and Becca persuaded Sarah to keep to the right lane as they threaded the old van wearily down the side streets and onto the highway. Even on I-84, Sarah didn't push it. Becca hoped beyond hope that she wasn't too overdue for her pills; she prayed they'd get home in one piece. They needed a miracle now, no matter who could give it.

"Goddamn," Sarah's thin voice spat the word like a chewed-up wad of gum, "It's still here. I thought they tore it down ages ago."

The Witch-House stood under the streetlights like a beast poised on its haunches. Their headlights flashed over the windows, giving the shack the eerie appearance of living, watching eyes. At the sight, a coldness stole over Becca—that was the only way she could describe it—and the heat from the vents wasn't enough to combat the chill.

She shivered till her teeth chattered.

"What are you doing?" she said, the words coming out in chopped-up bits as her teeth rattled together. She wasn't imagining it, the car was slowing down, "you can't stop!"

"There's no one here," Sarah replied, "And I've kind of always wanted to go in, haven't you? Dan did, once," she said, throwing the car into park, "he said it was pretty neat."

"No," she replied, wondering if she could grab the steering wheel and force them back on the road. But even if she could, there was no way to reach the gas pedal, "we can't. Mom's expecting us back; Dad's coming to get us right now."

Sarah stomped on the breaks and the seatbelt knocked Becca's breath from her lungs. "You called them?" she didn't need confirmation, tears were already standing in Becca's eyes, "You little brat. You bitch. I trusted you, and you…" she stopped, heaved, tears and sweat mingled on her flushed cheeks.

She unclipped her seatbelt and hopped out of the car. "Fuck you," she snarled, and slammed it behind her.

Becca watched her sister cross the three lanes of empty road and wade through the lumps of filthy snow and wilted grass. The door of the house seemed to open easily under her fingers; too easily for a warped old falling-down wooden shed. After a minute or two, no more, Becca was alone underneath a chill, distant moon and the high hum of streetlights.

The cold was all she knew now; her bones were made of ice, ice that spread its insidious chill through every pore of her skin. It froze the tears in her eyes until she couldn't even blink. She could only sit there, staring at the Witch-House, watching for a shadow of her sister through the grime-streaked windows.

But there was nothing. The car grew colder; Sarah had taken the keys with her. Even if she hadn't, Becca couldn't leave. Her parents were coming, her sister was there…she couldn't run.

At last, she shoved open the car door, hinges screaming in the desolation. She raced across the road as though cars were squealing down on her, but there wasn't a soul to be seen. The snow was hard to get over, she tripped and fell and went to her knees more than once, ungloved hands raw and unfeeling on the packed ice.

The door didn't yield for her. She pushed and pulled and leaned her whole body against it, finally losing patience and slamming her shoulder against the rotting wood. It didn't give so much as a splinter.

"Sarah?" she called at last, trembling, "Let me in."

Her voice faded into nothingness. "Let me in," she repeated, louder.

Not so much as a footstep from inside.

Becca felt the scream, tried to hold it back like she'd been holding for weeks, but it was too much for her. Like a volcano ripping the earth, the scream tore from her throat.

"Let me in, let me in!" she beat at the door with both hands and there were splinters enough then to bloody them, "I'll do anything, just let me in!"

Becca flung herself against the door, hysterical, crying, and finally kicked it as hard as she could. The door and her big toe gave way with the same kind of groaning snap. She limped across the threshold into the dank shadows of the cabin, a thin trickle orange light spreading across the warped floor before her.

"Sarah?" she sobbed, "I'm sorry. I promise, I'll never tell on you again. Please come out. Sarah?"

The creak of the floorboards gave the only answer. She stumbled forward, blind and careless as a mouse, knocking against cabinets and chairs and tables. The little room was stuffed with junk, some of it looking as old as the saltbox frame itself, and some of it much newer. There was a squat, olive-green filing cabinet shoved into a bassinet. A charred teaspoon lying atop a dresser veiled in spider-silk. An ancient baby doll dressed in a duck-print onesie.

Becca blinked again and again, eyes straining for the sight of her sister's pink coat or a flash of her green boots. But there was nothing. The room was barely ten feet wide—she should be able to see all of it from the door—but if Sarah was there, she had been buried like all the other shameful secrets.

Her foot ached, severed bones grinding against each other with every step, but the pain helped. Her hysteria was fading away, melting into congealed dread that sat heavy in her stomach, in her heart.

She sobbed. "I'll do anything. Sarah, I'll do anything. Answer me."

It wasn't Sarah's voice that replied.

Anything?

Not a word, not a whisper, not human…but a voice all the same. It was the rattle of old glass in a window-frame, the creak of a floorboard, the infinitesimal settling of dust, the whistle of wind through a chink in the walls.

The house. The house was speaking.

Becca replied, licking the tears from her lips as she spoke. "Yes. Just give my sister back to me. Please."

Your sister was gone before she came. You would have her as she was?

She didn't understand. "Yes. I want my sister as she was."

The floor rippled, pressing up against Becca's injured toe. Whether the words that came next were pleased or irritated Becca couldn't tell, but they were eager.

A high price for that.

"I'll do anything," she repeated. Somewhere far in the back of her mind, Becca realized that she was going mad, schizophrenic like her sister, like their uncle, but she didn't care. This felt real; improbable, magical, but real. Did knowing she was going mad mean she wasn't mad?

I might want the color of your hair, the shutters fluttered, Or the use of your eyes, the door thumped closed, or all the memories of your first three years. Will you pay?

"Yes."

Then take your sister.

Sarah was lying on a sofa right next to the door, a moth-eaten orange velvet chaise that Becca could swear had not been there before. The house was voiceless as she made her way through the rubbish to her sister's side.

The scrape of her boots woke Sarah up. "Hey," she smiled, bleary and soft, "there you are. My baby sister. Sorry I scared you. I guess it was just…I don't know. I don't even know why I did it."

"It's okay," Becca sniffled, wiping away the tears that felt clotted on her cheeks, "Do you feel better?"

"Yeah," Sarah swung upright, "just cold. Let's go and run the heater for a bit. Mom and Dad should be here soon."

"You're not mad?"

"No," Sarah said, "that wasn't fair of me. I freaked you out, and I'm sorry. I'll make sure you don't get the blame for any of this. C'mon."

She slung one arm, soft and warm, over Becca's shoulder, and together they squeezed through the door—now no easier or harder to open than one might expect—and crossed the highway. Sarah ran the engine and the radio, singing along with the slow-jam tunes of 2 AM. They snacked on a few slices of leftover pizza. It seemed as though Sarah had forgotten all about the cabin across the way. Normalcy buried the nightmare minute by minute, for her.

Becca couldn't forget. She stared at the Witch-House, swallowing the pizza in mechanical nibbles. She didn't feel any differently, but here her sister sat. The house had given her back. So what price had she paid? Her hair looked no differently in the mirror; she still retained what feverish scraps of memory from her very earliest years she always had. So what?

A half-hour later their parents stopped on the shoulder behind them and Sarah explained the whole story. There were tears and hugs and more than a few 'thank God's. Dad drove the van with Sarah in the front seat, and Becca stretched out on the back bench of the Subaru that Mom drove.

The highway lights washed her in orange, hypnotic and slow, inviting her to sleep. Her mind begged for some peace, a few hours of rest, but she couldn't close her eyes. Every time she did, her eyelids flipped open immediately, like a pulled shade.

Her heart rolled and thudded as panic welled unstoppable. Her eyes. The house had asked for the use of her eyes.

And clearly, it intended to have them.